Lore is a loser’s history of World War II, a less fantastical, more moving post-apocalyptic wasteland film out of Australia than the one that starred Mel Gibson back in 1979. Less fantastical because it’s set after a real-life apocalypse, taking place as it does in the ruins of a divided Germany at the close of the war. (Though probably anywhere can feel like a wasteland when you have nothing to eat and a screaming baby in tow.) More moving because its heroine, the titular Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), is a relative innocent: the 15-year-old daughter of an SS officer. If her beliefs are poisonous, it’s because she has been poisoned by those she loves. And the film’s central drama is nothing as viscerally satisfying as Mad Max’s revenge for the murder of his family. Rather, it’s the stripping of both Lore’s innocence and what taints it. The war was only the first of her losses, and far from the most painful.
The film’s opening makes it clear that Lore and her three younger siblings have spent their lives in a happy dream of German supremacy. Now the dream is ending: files must be burned, valuables gathered, the family dog put down. Papa must go to prison, and Mama must join him, leaving behind even her nursing baby. The kids must make their way across country, hoping to find refuge with relatives.
What follows is an exploration of unmade civilization in both its high and low aspects. On the low end, food, shelter, and hygiene become uncertain goods, and a boat ride across the river may carry a nasty cost. On the high, sweet belief in Der Führer curdles into bitterness, and bedrock convictions about what it means to be German and good (or Jewish and bad) are broken by blunt experience.
Thing after thing that the Lore of before would never do — begging for a wet nurse, stripping a watch from a suicide — she must do now. And while storms rage in her eyes and the strain shows in her face as each new outrage takes its toll, her dignity is the last thing to go. Or perhaps it isn’t her dignity; perhaps it’s merely the cherished set of illusions that propped up her self-regard.
Director Cate Shortland plays against the ugliness of events by giving us a Germany saturated in color and full of nature in soft focus. Here and there, the practice feels indulgent, even sentimental — as if the camera needs to look away from Lore’s youthful suffering. But Shortland’s pacing is sure, and her story is satisfying. The wasteland is cruel, but it can serve as a place of purification.
Due to a late change in scheduling, Lore will not be released until March 29.